N.B. This article was revised and edited 20 February 2019.
In the study of ghosts, particularly in North America, lighthouses appear frequently. I’m not sure about why these beacons for the living play such a role in the world of the dead, but they appear with noticeable regularity. In the United States, the bulk of the attention on haunted lighthouses concern those of the mid-Atlantic and New England states as well as the Great Lakes lighthouses of Michigan, though there are some quite prominent haunted Southern lighthouses. Among them, the St. Augustine and Pensacola lighthouses in Florida, both of which have been investigated by TAPS, the ghost hunting organization featured on the TV show, Ghost Hunters. In fact, the investigation of the St. Augustine Lighthouse featured the investigators chasing something up and down the stairs of the lighthouse itself.
Hilton Head Rear Range Light
Arthur Hill Golf Course, Palmetto Dunes Resort
Hilton Head Island
The most southern of all South Carolina’s lighthouses, the Hilton Head Rear Range Light is the only remaining of two lights that originally guided shipping in Port Royal Sound. With the front light, which was mounted on the roof of a lighthouse keeper’s cottage a mile away, these lights could be lined up by the navigators of ships to provide the safest route into port.
This, the remaining light, was constructed between 1879 and 1880 and lit for the first time in 1880. It consists of a cast-iron skeleton and the stair tower (originally clad in wood, but clad in iron sheeting probably around 1913) topped by a wooden watch room and lantern room. The cast-iron skeleton is bolted to a series of concrete bases. This complex once included a keeper’s cottage, but it was moved to Harbour Town in the Sea Pines Plantation resort complex in the 1980s. The light was decommissioned in 1932 and it was restored with the building of the Palmetto Dunes Resort. The beacon now presides over the 15th hole of the resort’s golf course.
In 1898 at the height of a tremendous hurricane, the lighthouse keeper, Adam Fripp, and his daughter Caroline, remained in the lantern room tending the light. A gale shattered the glass in the lamp, extinguishing it. At the same moment, Mr. Fripp suffered a massive heart attack. Still conscious, Fripp encouraged 20-year-old Caroline to continue tending the light and she did so following his death. Exhausted by the work and probably grief, Caroline died three weeks later.
Wearing the blue gown she was wearing the night of the hurricane, her spirit has been seen, and her sobs and wails of grief have been heard in and around the lighthouse. Terrance Zepke’s Ghosts of the Carolina Coast recounts a story of a young couple who encountered a young woman wearing a blue dress one stormy evening. She climbed in the back seat of their car soaking wet and the couple drove on. When the wife turned to speak to the young woman, the back seat was empty, though covered with water.
Cape Romain Lighthouse
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
Situated on a lonely barrier island, the Cape Romain Lighthouse is the perfectly place for a lonely spirit to walk. The first Cape Romain lighthouse is 65 feet high and was constructed in 1827 to guide mariners past the dangerous Cape Romain shoals. The light burned until 1857 when its much taller sibling, soaring 150 feet, was constructed with slave labor.
Like Pisa’s famous tower, the taller Cape Romain Lighthouse began to lean in the late nineteenth century. The tilt became so precarious that the Fresnel lens had to be adjusted to function properly. The lens was replaced in 1931 and the lighthouse was automated in 1937. Ten years later, the lighthouse was decommissioned and the light went dark. Since that time, the keeper’s quarters and outbuildings have disappeared leaving only the two towers standing mute. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the surrounding refuge, still maintains the pair of lighthouses.
The lonely setting of these now mute sentinels plays a significant part in its legend. Most likely in the late nineteenth century, a Norwegian man named Fischer was the keeper and lived on Lighthouse Island with his wife. The wife continuously begged her husband’s permission to leave the island and return to Norway for a visit, but he refused. One evening, Fischer was so angered by his wife’s pleading that he plunged a knife into her breast and buried her body near the lighthouse.
Those asking about his wife’s whereabouts were told that she had become despondent from the loneliness and had committed suicide. On his deathbed, he confessed to his wife’s murder and lighthouse keepers thereafter tended to the grave on the lonely island. Over time, a spirit was heard ascending the 195 steps of the lighthouse tower. Additionally, bloodstains inside the keeper’s cottage could not be scrubbed away.
August Fredreich Wichmann, one of the keepers in the early twentieth century reported hearing the sounds of footsteps in the tower many times. Wichmann’s son, who was born at the lighthouse believes the footsteps are from Fischer’s wife. If the footsteps are still heard, the only things to hear them are the goats and seabirds that now inhabit this lonely island.
Winyah Bay at the end of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries was vital to American trade. To aid ships passing into this bay, the Georgetown Light was constructed first in 1801. This cypress tower did not last long and was replaced in 1806 after being toppled in a gale. Some six years later, the current 87 foot brick tower was constructed. It is now the oldest active lighthouse in South Carolina.
Two reports of ghosts come from this light. Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones in their Southeastern Lighthouses: Outer Banks to Cape Florida report that footsteps are heard in the tower, though no indication is given as to the identity of the spirit.
The second story, in Terrance Zepke’s Ghosts of the Carolina Coast, however, is more interesting. Mariners tend to be a very superstitious bunch and this is indicated in this legend of a warning spirit attached to this lighthouse. Apparently, a lighthouse keeper and his young daughter had ventured into Georgetown, some miles south of the light. As they returned, a storm blew in and the young girl was tossed into the water. Her father jumped in to rescue her but she was lost. The lighthouse keeper survived and following his death, he and his daughter were seen rowing a small boat in Winyah Bay. Local mariners always took their appearance as a sign of a storm blowing in.
- Bansemer, Roger. Bansemer’s Book of Carolina and Georgia Lighthouses. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2000.
- Califf, John, III. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Georgetown Light. Listed 30 December 1974.
- DeWire, Eleanore and Daniel E. Dempster. Lighthouses of the South: Your Guide to the Lighthouses of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 2004.
- Elizabeth, Norma and Bruce Roberts. Lighthouse Ghosts: 13 Bone Fide Apparitions Standing Watch Over America’s Shores. Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill, 1999.
- Hilton Head Range Rear Light. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia Accessed 18 October 2010.
- Huntsinger, Elizabeth Robertson. More Ghosts of Georgetown. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1998.
- Lee, Charles E. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Cape Romain Lighthouses. Listed 12 November 1981.
- Roberts, Bruce and Ray Jones. Southeastern Lighthouses: Outer Banks to Cape Florida. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.
- Wells, John E. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Hilton Head Rear Range Light. Listed 12 December 1985.
- Zepke, Terrance. Ghosts of the Carolina Coasts: Haunted Lighthouses, Plantations, and Other Historic Sites. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2000.